All the news outlets are this evening ringing with the story of the twins, separated at birth, who inadvertently got married. According to former Lib Dem peer Lord (David) Alton, the prominent Roman Catholic campaigner, details of the case were passed to him by the judge who granted the couple's annulment at the High Court. There are, though, no names; there's only Alton's word for it that such a thing ever happened.
Alton raised the alleged case during a debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. His fear is that unless children who are adopted, or conceived via sperm donation or fertility treatment, are given full details of their parentage, such cases may occur more often. As he said,
The right for children to know the identity of their biological parents is a human right.
There will be more cases like this if children are not given access to the truth. The needs of the child must always be paramount. If you start trying to conceal someone's identity, sooner or later the truth will out. And if you don't know you are biologically related someone, you may become attracted to them and tragedies like this may occur.
Should we believe this story? Alton is not, perhaps, the most credible source. He has a track record of credulity, in the past giving his support to dubious claims of Satanic ritual abuse. He provides no evidence, not even as to when the case is supposed to have occurred. Yet so far his claim has been subjected to almost no critical examination by the media. So what's the likely truth?
It's certainly well-documented that siblings who are separated at birth can feel attraction if they meet up in adulthood. The term "Genetic sexual attraction" was coined in the 1980s and is recognised as a potential danger by adoption agencies. According to some claims, as many as 50% of siblings, half-siblings and even parents and children who meet via adoption searches feel some form of GSA, and full-blown sexual relationships are not unknown, even in cases where both parties are fully aware of their connection. Sue Cowling of the Post-Adoption Centre claimed a few years ago that "Genetic sexual attraction associated with IVF births is a time bomb waiting to go off."
Nevertheless I am highly suspicious of Alton's story. There are just too many things that needed to happen. We have to believe that these people met by pure chance, got to know each other, discovered that they shared the same birthday and were both adopted, and yet never considered for a moment the possibility that they might be related. Twins have to be registered as such, so the fact of twinship would have been recorded on both parties' birth certificates. You also have to believe that the twins were separated at birth in the first place. For at least 40 years, adoption policy has been to keep twins together wherever possible. Add to that the relative rarity of twins being adopted (at least as a proportion of the general population), and you have a story that is statistically very unlikely indeed.
If they were ordinary siblings, rather than twins, the story would be far more believable. Such occurrences have been well documented. In one notorious German case, a couple who met when a man traced his biological family had children and fought in the courts for their right to live together. The idea of twins separated at birth is, however, a staple of folklore and fairy-tale. It's scarcely surprising that this allegedly real event has generated far more sensational headlines than a simple case of incest would have done.
And suppose that this story is indeed true. What on earth was Alton thinking of? Although no names were given, the effect of this news will inevitably be to set off a press feeding frenzy. Some people will know the details: friends, neighbours, relatives. Unless they have been given new lives, Maxine Carr-style, they will surely be found. In raising the case publicly, Alton has gratuitously put these unfortunate people at great risk. Would he really have done such a thing?
It's possible that one or other of these people will come forward, give their story, and collect a large cheque from one of our more disreputable tabloids. But until then I'm sceptical. I'm not suggesting that either Alton or the judge made it up. It's more likely to have been a misunderstanding. Lawyers, like doctors, undertakers, or members or any other professional group, have their folklore, stories that do the rounds of conferences and courtrooms and improve in the telling. Perhaps the judge was chatting to Alton about the bill and said something along the lines of "I heard of a case once where there were twins who got married...". A judicial urban legend, turned into apparent fact by an over-eager Lord Alton looking for evidence to back up his concerns about the legislation? That's the likeliest explanation, I think.
Update: Lord Alton's Tall Story